When you’re in the tourism business and the highlight of the year – bear season – is only two months long, evolution is the name of the game.
That’s why the family behind Great White Bear Tours Inc. (GWBT) in Churchill just built a pod to add northern lights tours to its roster in February and March.
The Walkoski family was Churchill-based until 2002, when they decided to capitalize on their manufacturing abilities in Winnipeg.
Originally, owner Don Walkoski believed the business would specialize in custom all-terrain vehicles for other tour companies like his own, but the business name became quite literal in its operations: Anything Custom.
Anything Custom, located at 1441 Waverley St. in Winnipeg, does custom welding, fabricating and repairs for jobs as small as handrails and gates for individuals, up to industrial jobs like its own specialty polar rovers. (The tourism business has a fleet of 12 custom-built tundra rovers in use in Churchill.)
When GWBT started out, Don was building the tundra vehicles, and his wife Marilyn drove them. The vehicles’ height provides passengers safety from the bears, and allows them to travel smoothly and view them easily – plus the large wheels allow the vehicles to leave behind the smallest footprint possible.
The polar rovers also allow the tourism company to secure off-road permits, granting them unlimited access to Manitoba’s Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Great White Bear Tours began operations in 1988, and, realizing they needed all-terrain vehicles to escort visitors comfortably out on the tundra, Don set out to make his own.
Don and Marilyn’s three children were born and raised in Churchill, and quickly the business became an all-hands-on-deck commodity.
“They made the mistake of saying they were done their homework,” laughs Marilyn. Now the manager of operations at Anything Custom, eldest son Sheldon remembers pitching in with the business in Churchill in some of his earliest memories.
“Just being at the shop, cleaning up, doing basic labour duties,” reminisces Sheldon. When he was 16, his family left Churchill to start up Anything Custom, but Don and Marilyn still spend about five months a year working in the north.
“It would’ve been really hard for us to just quit going,” says Marilyn. “It’s still totally family owned and operated.
“You never get tired of seeing the bears,” she adds.
“I actually went up and drove a rover for one season which was an amazing job,” says Sheldon. At a certain point, “it gets really interesting to watch the people more than the bear,” he laughs.
Though he helps run the business side of things at Anything Custom, Sheldon is also regularly seen getting his hands dirty. He is a welder by trade, and trains each staff member at the shop.
He says the ever-changing requests are what make the work exciting. “That’s what makes it fun – something that other people wouldn’t do and I’m stupid enough to try,” he laughs. “The real passion is in building things.
“There’s not a lot of shops that are willing to do the smaller jobs and the more meticulous stuff,” he adds.
As for what sets GWBT apart from other tourism companies in Churchill, Sheldon thinks it comes down to craftsmanship as well. The rovers are known as “the Cadillac of the north.” Plush seats on fully-heated machines with see-through grated back decks and flush toilets ensure guests’ comfort and a tour experience that is unsurpassed. A full shop dedicated to the maintenance of the rovers is also based in Churchill.
“We tend to get very positive reviews on the condition of our machines,” say Sheldon. “We’re never concerned that we’re going to strand people out on the tundra because of breakdowns.”